Saturday, December 21, 2013

That Christmas Thing

Did that.  Glad it is over.  Long time readers of my Late Night Bible Study might remember that I have this strange quirk when it comes to the Christmas season.  Well, ok, at least one.  One I intend to tell you about right now anyway.  Unless something else comes up in the conversation.  Cause, I mean, you never know.

Where was I?  Ah, yes, quirk.  I like to go shopping on the Saturday before Christmas.  There, I said it.  Laid it out right there in front of God and everybody.  Like a twelve step group or something.  “Hi, my name is Derek and I like to go shopping on the Saturday before Christmas.”  “Hi Derek!”  I’d say I was in recovery, but I’m not.  I love it.  Weird, I know.  To say that you enjoy shopping on a day where you spend more time creeping through lanes and searching for parking spots than actually shopping; to claim some satisfaction when standing in long lines of people most of whom ran out of Christmas spirit a few stores ago, and the clean up on aisle nine is a meltdown of apocalyptic proportions; when the check out clerks flinch when you clear your throat because they have been yelled at and complained to and snubbed in disgust so many times they are wary of the slightest sign of displeasure; who in their right mind would venture out on such an expedition?

Well, got you there, that right mind thing.  Never promised that.  Still, I find some joy in the adventure.  Call it a search for ... well, a search.  For the last minute gifts that I’m always trying to secure, there is that of course.  But that’s not it completely.  There is something else that sends me out, even in a driving rain, to observe, to catch a glimpse.  Something out there, bigger than just me and my wants and dreams, my hurts and my needs.  Something  beyond pettiness of the politics of division.  Something beyond the frustrations of family over-familiarity and frayed fellowship.  And something beyond the ravages of consumerism and the confused notion that spiritual hungers can be satisfied with material goods.

That’s what folks have told me over the years when I share this odd quirk with them.  “It is materialism on overdrive, don’t you know?” they tell me.  “It is the worst of us in the season that should bring out the best in us.  It is the opposite of what Christmas is all about.”  And they are right, these voices that I hear.  I can’t really argue with them.  Yet ... I go, and watch, and listen, and enter in the melee, the scrum, the .... hopes and fears of all the years.

That’s my song this year.  OK, another quirk on its way.  Each season a Christmas song jumps out at me as somehow definitive of the season, or at least of the condition of my heart in this season.  This year it is Rev. Philips Brooks’ classic carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  And while the scene I witnessed this afternoon is the exact opposite of the opening verse, it still seemed to speak to me about what I was wandering through.  

O little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie / Above thy deep and dreamless sleep / The silent stars go by / Yet in thy dark streets shineth / The everlasting Light / The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight.

The stillness was replaced by the flurry of activity both motorized and pedestrian. Instead of silent stars there were the long lines of headlights and taillights piercing the fog and rain, but the streets were “shinething” something fierce.  But was that everlasting light there?  That’s what I went to see, that’s what I hope to find.  Hopes and fears aplenty, met in the latest gadget, in the thing of beauty that just might somehow convey to friend or family member something of what they mean to us.  

Something to search for, something to name.  That’s what we hope for at Christmas, something we can name, something we can claim as real, as ours, something that puts all the pieces of our lives together.  That’s what we’re looking for, even when we don’t always know it.  Even when it catches us by surprise and, frankly, scares us a little bit.  Or a lot.

Matthew 1:18-25  Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."  22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:  23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."  24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,  25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. 

Joseph seems like one of the carried along in the wake of Christmas.  Like the dad carrying to coats in the big box store, with a glazed look on his face waiting for his wife to make all the important decisions.  He is just supposed to nod along when asked his opinion.  He doesn’t even get a visitor like Luke tells us Mary gets.  He gets a dream.  And in the light of morning who can trust in a dream?

Joseph can, apparently.  He was, Matthew tells us, a righteous man.  Up to now, that usually meant he followed the law.  He was obedient to what God had outlined in the law and described by the prophets.  Joseph was a law-abiding man.  Until now.  When the dream told him to not follow the law.  The law said get rid of her.  The law said she has shamed you, she has broken the covenant, and the punishment was separation, dismissal, humiliation, even death.  Joseph was a righteous man, and his righteousness said that he had to go, she had to go, but he could be compassionate too.  He made up his mind to be as kind as the law allowed.

But the dream wanted more.  The dream wanted faith that goes beyond law.  The dream wanted hope in the midst of despair.  The dream wanted a future in the face of dissolution.  And perhaps that was what Joseph wanted too.  Maybe that was why he could be transformed by a dream, he could redefine righteousness as obedient to God who is the law, and is doing a new thing.  Do not be afraid, the dream said, to take Mary as your wife.  The hopes and fears of all the years are met in you tonight, Joseph.  Name them.  Claim them.

So he did.  As simple as that, he did.  As amazing as that, as outrageous as that, he did.  Matthew says that God wanted Jesus to be a part of that line, that line of faithfulness, of those who were righteous not because the stayed within the boundaries of polite society, but because they ventured out into the wild world and took a risk.  Joseph was in that line and now Jesus was, because Joseph claimed him.  Those last words, seemingly insignificant, what’s his name?  It is more than just naming, it is claiming, it is saying he is mine, my son, my savior.  

That’s what we’re looking for, out and about in the busyness of the world around us.  Something that will define us, something that will remake us, transform us.  Some relationship, some hope, some love that will make us new.  
O holy Child of Bethlehem / Descend to us, we pray / Cast out our sin and enter in / Be born to us today / We hear the Christmas angels / The great glad tidings tell / O come to us, abide with us / Our Lord Emmanuel

What I go out to see in the muddle of our world is not necessarily the Christ child, or the light that glows within.  No, I think what I’m going to find is the world that he came to save.  The masses of humanity who think they can find salvation in the stuff of this life, like I know I do sometimes.  When I forget.  I took Rhys with me this time.  As we pulled into the slow-moving traffic at Jefferson Pointe, he said “wow, look at all the cars.  I guess it is because of that Christmas thing.”  Yes, indeed.  That Christmas thing.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Those of a Fearful Heart

I should have known better.  I should have taken the opportunity when it presented itself.  But I decided to wait, for another time, so as not to disrupt whatever it was that I didn’t want to disrupt.  And that time was supposed to be this time.  This day.  This weekend.  I put off doing the outside decorations - because I wasn't in the mood, because I had better things to do, because I didn't know what I was going to do.  So, I put it off.  And this was the day.  The kids come home at various times this week and I wanted to greet them with lights and greenery, a welcome, a light in the window saying we are glad you are home.  As well as our usual shout from the rooftops that Christ has come, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.  That’s what outside decorations are all about after all.  Aren’t they?  And a couple of weeks ago when we first thought about it the temperature was warm, fifty something, as I recall.  

So, then, as I planned it out in my head, this weekend – well actually it was last weekend, but then we had tickets to the Notre Dame women’s basketball and other stuff.  We did get the stuff down from the attic, but it was so cold we had to let it warm up before attempting to put it up.  And then Monday came, my supposed day off, and a family crisis of sorts hit and it didn’t get done then either.  So, this was it.  This weekend.  I was going to try something new, something innovative, something that would make the folks driving by think, boy those people are clever, or artistic or maybe just wow.  They would say wow.  Or ooh and ahh like at the fireworks on the fourth of July.  This weekend.

I just turned around to check, and yes, it is still snowing.  Still.  I slipped and slid my way to church for the men’s group this morning and wondered if that was the smartest thing I ever did.  Not so bad at 7am, but getting worse by the moment.  Bah, humbug.  Maybe I won’t put out the lights after all.  Mumble, mumble.

Trees are up inside, with the lights on them.  La Donna has the candles in the windows, and is putting the ornaments on the trees.  Maybe that is good enough.  Maybe we’ll just be content with that.  Just pack away all the other stuff sitting on the couch – in the cat’s way, I might add.  Maybe we’ll just pack it away and wait for next year to try our new idea.  After all, who says we’ve got to do this anyway?  I mean, the shepherds didn’t hang tinsel from their crooks after they came to the manger.  The wise guys didn’t wear ugly sweaters as they rode from the east.  They didn’t put red noses or antlers on their camels as they drove.  The shepherds didn’t string lights across their sheep-folds scattered across the pasture.  So, why bother?  I mean it is cold.  And still snowing.  Still.

Isaiah 35:1-10   The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus  2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.  3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you."  5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;  6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;  7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.  8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.  9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.  10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. 

Chapter thirty-five of Isaiah is considered a transitional chapter.  Though they aren’t named, most scholars talk about three different Isaiahs all contained within the sixty-six chapters of the book that bears that name.  And this chapter is a transition between First Isaiah and Second Isaiah.  First Isaiah is largely about warning, trying to get God’s people to see that their present course is going to lead to disaster, that the political relationships they have created will be their undoing, that their economic policies are unsustainable, that the road they are on will lead to destruction and exile.  And Second Isaiah, written during that time of exile, is largely about hope and a promised return.  

"Largely", because there is hope in First Isaiah and there is warning in Second Isaiah.  But in the middle section of the book we are looking longingly for home, that much is clear.  From about chapter forty on there is this sense that all is not right, that we aren’t where we are supposed to be and we aren’t who we are supposed to be.  But overriding that sense of unease there is a word that says it won’t always be this way.  But this message doesn’t come in some vague, impersonal way.  It comes with exuberant joy.  It comes with lushness and excess.  It comes with promise and with security.   It comes with applause.

The desert blooms and blossoms to usher us back home.  The waters, normally such a temporary thing in that climate, will break forth, splashing up, pouring out, rising high, like the dancing waters at Disney World, like an open fire hydrant at on a hot summer day, like a cold bucket of Gatorade dumped on the winning coach.  We’re all winners on the road home.  We are all celebrated on the journey to where we belong.  

But do you see the promise?  Not only is there a route home, but it is safe and secure, protected from all sorts of enemies, and it is well provisioned, there is water to quench our thirsts, and there is some sort of divine GPS, we simply can’t get lost.  And better than that, our aches and pains, our brokenness and infirmity will disappear on this journey.  Our disabilities don’t limit us, don’t handicap us.  We can dance and sing, we can see and we can hear, because this journey is one of beauty and of joy.

Best of all, however, is we are not alone.  This is not a solitary journey where we cross the miles and work our way into the preparations to face family who both lift us up and knock us down at the same time it seems.  Not a “find your own way” and then the party starts once you get there.  No, indeed.  

First of all, God has come.  That’s the reason for all the celebration anyway.  God has come to bring us home.  God has come to escort us home.  God has come to walk with us every step of the way.  No wonder there is joy on our heads.  No wonder sorry and sighing shall flee away.  No wonder there is all the dancing and singing and splashing around in the courtyard fountains.  John Wesley’s dying words were reported to be “best of all, God is with us.”

Best of all.  But the second is like it.  Isaiah tells us what we will do when we are on our way home, to this home of all homes, the home of our heart and soul, the home that will make us whole again for the first time.  And what we do is share it.  Say to those, he tells us, strengthen, he proclaims, make firm, he encourages us.  He isn’t talking to God here, he is talking to us.  And he isn't telling us to strengthen our own weak hands, or to make firm our own feeble knees, though God knows they are feeble and in need of strengthening.  God knows our hearts are fearful even at the best of times, it seems.  We are hardly the best ambassadors of God’s grace and hope, hardly the best witnesses to comfort and joy.  And we are what God has to work with.  We are the sign that the journey home has begun.  We are witnesses to God with us - to Emmanuel.  We are the light in the darkness, announcing to any and all that the season of joy and light, of peace and goodwill, is here.  Say to those of a fearful heart, be strong, fear not.

It’s still snowing.  Hmm.  There are, however, lights to hang.  Hands to strengthen, knees to make firm.  Gotta fire up the snowblower.  Merry Christmas!